A report that commercial jet maker Airbus did not act to fix a sensor design problem that may have led to June’s deadly crash of Air France Flight 447 seem too bad to be true.
If this is true, the evidence would show that Airbus first learned in 2002 that the airspeed sensors it installed on its large passenger planes could ice over or stop working when filled with water. The sensors, made by French company Thales SA, play a key role in the proper functioning of the automatic pilot. Fight 447 — an Airbus-made plane — plunged into the Atlantic Ocean after flying into a thunderstorm and when its pilots would have been relying on their autopilot.
The Federal Aviation Administration finally ordered airlines to replace all the speed sensors on their Airbus planes at the beginning of this September. A known problem with an essential piece of safety equipment went ignored by Airbus, airlines and U.S. regulators for six years.
Again, this should seem difficult to believe. Unfortunately, it happens too often that product defects and dangers prompt no actions by manufacturers or regulators for years. Drop side cribs remain on the market despite several suffocations among babies. Combination acetaminophen products cause extensive liver damage to thousands of patients each year, which is to say nothing of the many deaths due to the opioid painkiller fentanyl. Asbestos stayed in wide use through the 1980s, long after its link with the deadly cancer mesothelioma was recognized.
I would argue that airlines and plane makers, as well as the officials watch over them, have some of the highest moral and legal obligations to correct know problems and protect passengers. As one of my colleagues who is also a licensed pilot wrote a while ago, “Aircraft crashes do not produce ‘fender benders.'”
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